Enter the Matrix: the virtual-reality future of car design

Published: 18 August 2016

► How virtual reality is shaping your next car
► We try out Infiniti's latest VR headsets
► Prepare to look stupid as you pick your paint 

Ever sat in a dealership surrounded by tiny, multi-coloured plastic car models trying to work out which paint is the right one for you?

Soon you’ll be able to don a pair of virtual reality goggles and walk around a life-sized version of your new car, cycling through different trim-levels, paint colours and finishes in front of your very eyes. And we've tried the tech for real down at Infiniti's new London design HQ.

Designers have been using the tech for some time, fine-tuning the available colours to make sure they show off the car’s curves and creases in the best way possible. This tech will one day be offered in the showroom.

Paint picks: why some cars suit particular colours

Matt Weaver, Infiniti design director, said the tones picked by the manufacturer were responsible for displaying the car’s three-dimensional design in the best light.

He added: ‘We have to make sure the graphics and volumes we have show up through the use of colour, it’s all baked into the car.

Infiniti's design HQ in London

‘It would be counter-intuitive to design something with sculpture and then take it away with a flat white paint colour.’

The technology to virtually develop and test new paint colours is nothing new. Using three-dimensional modelling, designers can experiment with everything from the top layer of clear coat right down to the base colour, and the size of metallic flakes used in between.

Specialist software even allows different lighting to be loaded in, whether it’s a Californian highway, a Tokyo studio or grimy London street to make sure the car looks its best where ever it goes on sale.

Where does virtual reality come into this?

Until now, the three-dimensional model had to be viewed on a two-dimensional screen. But with a pair of £800 virtual reality goggles, designers can now walk around a full-size, digital model of a car, exploring the way light catches and reflects off its multitude of surfaces.

We were let loose with the new tech at the Infiniti Design Centre in Paddington, transporting us to a beachside road in America where a Liquid Copper Q30 sat waiting to be explored.

It takes a couple of minutes to acclimatise to but you soon pick it up, moving around and inside the car as if it was right there in front of you. It’s vastly more useful than click-and-dragging a model around a screen.

That doesn’t sound particularly ground-breaking…

It’s true that virtual reality has been around for a while now - you can build a Google headset out of cardboard for the same price as a cinema trip. But it’s the democratisation of this technology that makes it a realistic and cost-effective tool for car designers. 

Welcome to the future of car showrooms

Sandra Boberg, Infiniti colour manager, said: ‘This technology is getting better and better. Previously we could go into full-scale but only on a flat panel. With virtual reality you feel completely immersed.’

By the end of 2016 designers from Infiniti expect to be able to hold virtual-reality design reviews with multiple people in the same space, even hooking up with creatives in Japan represented by animated avatars, all in real time - a VR video conference.

Within a few years it could even be possible for designers to plug-in and sketch a new car in three dimensions, from the ground up, while totally immersed in a virtual reality studio.

More intriguingly, the tech could also be used in showrooms to help customers pick between different trim and colour options – an online car configurator brought to life by a VR headset – so you can spend your lunch-break sitting inside that purple and gold two-tone Rolls Royce.

Click here for our Infiniti car reviews

By Adam Binnie

Bauer Automotive's new cars editor; likes bikes and burgers, often over-tyred